Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
It was two months before Madeleine saw him again. He was installed in his room, two powerful nurses attended him day and night, and Holt slept on a cot near the bed. He was almost ungovernable at first, in spite of the drugs the doctor gave him, but these had their effect in time; and then the tapering-off process began, combined with hotly peppered soups and the vegetable most inimical to alcohol; finally food in increasing quantity to restore his depleted vitality. In his first sane moment he had made Holt promise that Madeleine should not see him, and she had sent word that she would wait until he sent for her.
Madeleine took long walks, and drives, and read in the Astor Library. She also replenished her wardrobe. The color came back to her cheeks, the sparkle to her eyes. She had made all her plans. The house in Virginia was being renovated. She would take him there as soon as he could be moved. When he was strong again he would start his newspaper. Holt and Lacey were as overjoyed at the prospect of being his assistant editors as at the almost unbelievable rescue of Langdon Masters.
He had remained in bed after the worst was over, sunk in torpor, with no desire to leave it or to live. But strength gradually returned to his wasted frame, the day nurse was dismissed, and he appeared to listen when Holt talked to him, although he would not reply. One day, however, when he believed himself to be alone, he opened his eyes and stared at the wall covered with his books, as he had done before through half-closed lids. Then his gaze wandered to the green curtains. But his mind was clear. He was visited by no delusions. This was not the Occidental Hotel.
It was long since he had read a book! He wondered, with his first symptom of returning interest in life, if he was strong enough to cross the room and find one of his favorite volumes. But as he raised himself on his elbow Holt bent over him.
"What is it, old fellow?"
"Those books? How did they get here?"
"Lacey brought them. You remember, you left them in the Times cellar."
"Are these your rooms?"
"No, they are Madeleine Talbot's."
He made no reply, but he did not scowl and turn his back as he had done whenever Holt had tentatively mentioned her name before. The sight of his familiar beloved books had softened his harsh spirit, and the hideous chasm between his present and his past seemed visibly shrinking. His tones, however, had not softened when he asked curtly after a moment:
"What is the meaning of it all? Why is she here? Is Talbot dead?"
"No, he divorced her."
"Divorced her? Madeleine?" He almost sat upright. Mrs. Abbott could not have looked more horrified. "Is this some infernal joke?"
"Are you strong enough to hear the whole story? I warn you it isn't a pretty one. But I've promised her I would tell you--"
"What did he divorce her for?"
"Desertion. There was worse behind."
"Do you mean to tell me there was another man? I'll break your neck."
"There was no other man. I'll give you a few drops of digitalis, although you must have the heart of an ox--"
"Give me a drink. I'm sick of your damn physic. Don't worry. I'm out of that, and I shan't go back."
Holt poured him out a small quantity of old Bourbon and diluted it with water. Masters regarded it with a look of scorn but tossed it off.
"What was the worse behind?"
"When she heard what had become of you--she got it out of me--she deliberately made a drunkard of herself. She became the scandal of the town. She was cast out, neck and crop. Every friend she ever had cut her, avoided her as if she were a leper. She left the doctor and lived by herself in one room on the Plaza. I met her again in one of the worst dives in San Francisco--"
"Stop!" Masters' voice rose to a scream. He tried to get out of bed but fell back on the pillows. "You are a liar--you--you--"
"You shall listen whether you relish the facts or not. I have given her my promise." And he told the story in all its abominable details, sparing the writhing man on the bed nothing. He drew upon his imagination for scenes between Madeleine and the doctor, of whose misery he gave a harrowing picture. He described the episode on the boat after her drinking bout at Blazes', of the futile attempts of Sally Abbott and Talbot to cure her. He gave graphic and hideous pictures of the dives she had frequented alone, the risks she had run in the most vicious resorts on Barbary Coast. Not until he had seared Masters' brain indelibly did he pass to Madeleine's gradual rise from her depths, the restoration of her beauty and charm and sanity. It was when she was almost herself again that Talbot had offered to forgive her and take her to Europe to live, offering divorce as the alternative.
"Of course she accepted the divorce," Holt concluded. "That meant freedom to go to you."
Masters had grown calm by degrees. "I should never have dreamed even Madeleine was capable of that," he said. "And there was a time when I believed there was no height to which she could not soar. She is a great woman and a great lover, and I am no more worthy of her now than I was in that sink where you found me. Nor ever shall be. Go out and bring in a barber."
Holt laughed. "At least you are yourself again and I fancy she'll ask no more than that. Shall I tell her you will see her in an hour?"
"Yes, I'll see her. God! What a woman."